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T.S. Stribling - Biography

Southern Literary Maverick

by William E. Smith, Jr.

The name T. S. Stribling stirs mixed emotions for some natives of the Tennessee Valley area. This native son of the South was a true literary maverick. He was a Pulitzer Prize winning author who helped lead the way for other Southern authors to write critically about their homeland. He is arguably one of the most important residents to ever live in Florence, Alabama, and the most esteemed graduate of the University of North Alabama.

Thomas Sigismund Stribling was born March 4, 1881, in Clifton, Tennessee. His parents were Christopher Columbus Stribling and Amelia Waits Stribling. While Stribling was raised in Clifton, many of the summers of his youth were spent with his maternal grandparents on their farm in Gravelly Springs, Alabama. From these visits with the Waits, Stribling would later draw to create some of the settings and characters for his future novels.

He began his primary education at the Clifton Masonic Academy in 1890. Three years later at the age of twelve, the future award winning author wrote and sold his first story for five dollars. The ghost story titled "The House of Haunted Shadows" was published in a Florence grocery store pamphlet and freely distributed. In 1898, Stribling attended Huntingdon Southern Normal University in Huntingdon, Tennessee. He left the campus the following spring of 1899.

As with many young people, T. S. Stribling constantly argued with his parents over what profession he should pursue. This vocation struggle would continue during the next few years. Over the objections of his parents, Stribling focused on becoming a writer. At the age of twenty, he began serving as editor of the small weekly Clifton newspaper, The Clifton News, in 1900. This employment was short lived because at the urging of his father, Stribling moved to Florence the next year to became a clerk in the Florence law office of George Jones.

In 1902, T. S. Stribling continued his formal education by enrolling in the Florence Normal School. This was the forerunner of the present University of North Alabama. After two years of study, Stribling graduated from the Normal School in 1903.

Upon graduation, he moved to Tuscaloosa to teach in a local high school. This move allowed him to earn enough money to further pursue the wishes of his father and attend law school. In 1905, T.S. Stribling graduated from the University of Alabama School of Law.

After graduation from law school, he began practicing law in the Florence law office of Governor Emmett O'Neal. His tenure in Governor O'Neal's office was short lived. As Stribling later recalled, Governor O'Neal was quite impressed with all of the work and writing his young associate performed. O'Neal's appreciation continued until he realized the work consisted mostly of Stribling writing short stories. Shortly after this incident, Stribling began working for another Florence attorney, John Ashcraft. Within a few months, he would leave the legal profession completely and devoted himself to becoming a writer.

Moving to Nashville in 1907, he began writing for The Taylor-Trotwood magazine. In addition to contributing stories, Stribling worked in the office and sold magazine subscriptions. Despite the literary successes of the magazine, its financial stability was wanting. He left the magazine the following year and began writing short stories for Sunday school magazines and other publications such as American Boy.

Stribling developed an elaborate method to help him produce his short stories. The system involved taking a white sheet of cardboard and dividing it into columns. The columns would consist of various settings, weather, sports, characters, locations, bad habits and good morals. He would shut his eyes and randomly run a wavy line across the columns. This approach insured originality and created some very interesting stories. During this time, he wrote as many as seven short stories a day.

T. S. Stribling described these short stories as moral adventures which showed "how diligence and virtue were always rewarded and how a boy who never smoked cigarettes would undoubtedly get to be a great banker and would eventually foreclose on the cigarette smoker's farm." Over the course of the next decade, Stribling estimated he wrote over ten thousand of these short stories. Many of these short stories were published under anonymous names.

Like other writers, T. S. Stribling thought to improve his craft he should travel abroad. He used the money he was making from writing his short stories to finance his travels. He sought to increase his spheres of influence by traveling throughout the United States, Cuba, South America, and Europe.

In 1917, Stribling became a reporter for the Chattanooga News. In that same year, he converted one of his short stories into a novel entitled, Cruise of the Dry Dock. It was published by Reilly and Britton of Chicago, Illinois. By 1920, he had returned home to Clifton and continued writing short stories which were published in "pulp" magazines like American Boy, Argosy, and Adventure.

This same year, Stribling began work on the novel Birthright. It dealt with social issues and race relations in the South. Birthright was first published as a serial in Century Magazine in 1921. Century would also publish it as a novel in 1922. The protagonist of the novel was an educated mulatto male who tried to survive in a small Southern town filled with racial prejudice. The setting of the novel was Hooker's Bend which was modeled after the author's hometown of Clifton. Many years after its publication, Stribling identified his work as "the first realistic novel of Negroes written in this country since Opie Read produced My Young Master."

In 1924, the famous black director Oscar Micheaux adapted Birthright into a silent film. Part of the uniqueness of Micheaux's work was his use of an all-minority cast. Fifteen years later with the advent of talking film, Micheaux would remake the same movie into a talking version.

Over the next few years T. S. Stribling published a string of novels. East is East was his third novel. It was published in 1922 by the Frank A. Munsey Company of New York. The following year Fombombo was published by Century Publishing Company. It's successor was Red Sand, whichwas published by Harcourt Brace of New York in 1924.

Stribling's sixth novel was Teeftallow. Published in 1926, it became his first best seller in addition to being a critical success. Teeftallow was well received by critics in America and England. However, Southern critics were hostile to the manner in which Stribling dealt with some of the South's social issues. Mr. Stribling would later adapt this novel into a Broadway play called "Rope." Rope was limited to thirty- two performances at the Biltmore Theater in New York.

Over the next several years, T.S. Stribling continued writing novels which dealt with a myriad of political and social issues. Some of these novels included Bright Metal (1928), Strange Moon (1929), Clues of the Caribees (1929), and Backwater (1930). All of these novels were published by Doubleday Publishing Company.

In 1930, T.S. Stribling married Louella Kloss. She was a long time friend and native of Clifton, Tennessee. "Miss Louella", as she was affectionately called by friends, was a graduate of Columbia University. She was a music instructor who was quite accomplished with a violin and piano.

In addition to his marriage, 1930 proved to be a watershed year in Stribling's literary life. It marks the year when he completed work on The Forge. This was the first novel of his epic trilogy about the South. Published in 1931, The Forge traces the lives of the fictional Vaiden family of Lauderdale County. Its story begins in the antebellum period and continues through the conclusion of the Civil War. The Forge offers a vivid, realistic portrayal of life during these times and how the war affected Southern families. It is a composite of the demise of the Old South. As the author would later reveal, many of the Vaiden characters as well as other characters were based on members of his own family. While The Forge has no protagonist, it introduces us to the character, Colonel Miltaides Vaiden, who will serve as the central character throughout the remaining two novels.

In 1932, the second installment of his trilogy was published. The Store is set in Florence and Lauderdale County in 1884. It continues to trace the lives of the Vaiden family and Col. Vaiden through the post-reconstruction years. The Store instantly became a best seller and highly acclaimed. Time magazine said it "is easily the most important U. S. novel of the year." Robert Coates of the New Yorker magazine compared T. S. Stribling "to Mark Twain in his abilities to convey the very life and movement of a small Southern town."

On June 6, 1933, Columbia University awarded T.S. Stribling the Pulitzer Prize in Letters for The Store. It was chosen over Mutiny on the Bounty and Ellen Glasgow's The Sheltered Life. The Pulitzer committee selected The Store because "of its sustained interest, and because of the convincing and comprehensive picture it presents of life in an inland Southern community during the middle eighties of the last century."

T. S. Stribling was the first of two Alabama authors to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Harper Lee, a native of Monroeville, is the second Alabamian to receive this distinguished honor. She received the award in 1961 for her inspiring To Kill a Mockingbird.

The final installment of Stribling's trilogy, Unfinished Cathedral, was published in 1934. Like its two predecessors, it continues to follow the lives of Col. Vaiden and his family members. Set in Florence, it takes place during the 1920's with the building of Wilson Dam on the Tennessee River and the accompanying land boom speculation. One of the leading characters of the novel is Jerry Catlin. He is the nephew of Col. Vaiden and an assistant minister of the Pine Street Methodist Church. Local legend claims Florence's First United Methodist Church is the backdrop for this novel. As Stribling would later note, Unfinished Cathedral "is really a story of religion and preachers and the connection between them."

Stribling's trilogy was unprecedented in many respects. It directly attacked the economic, social, and political injustices which prevailed in the South. It offered a stark and realistic portrayal of life and race relations in the South. The novels directly address many subjects which society considered taboo. They provided a unique perspective into many of the cultural events which helped shape the South such as the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the famous Scottsboro Boys case. In addition, Stribling's trilogy sold in excess of 240,000 copies during the Great Depression resulting in T. S. Stribling becoming Doubleday's best selling author.

Despite the national and international success of these novels, their publication caused a great deal of animosity among some local citizens. The controversy over the trilogy prompted Mr. Stribling to write an article titled "Apology To Florence" in Wings magazine in June 1934. Excerpts from this apology were later published in the Florence Herald on May 25, 1934. In his apology, Stribling said his trilogy had been a "survey; more or less, of the foibles and amusing social kinks of the whole South from Civil War times to the present. I have focused everything I found on Florence because that was the scene of my prolonged story. I am in the position of a very sad literary dog which drags every bone to his kennel, and I know this has made it quite uncomfortable for the perfectly nice and charming people who live in the house."

Stribling went further to say "nowhere in the South exists such a concentration of moral and financial quirks, twists, and biases as I have depicted in Florence." He concluded by saying "[a]s a matter of literal fact, Florence, Alabama is one of the pleasantest places I have ever known, filled with the most mellow and delightful folk. The only reason I chose Florence for the scene of my trilogy is because it had an interesting and romantic past, and it possesses more than its share of actual physical loveliness and softness and floweryness which gave me precisely the sort of aesthetic relief which my ruthless narrative required. So, as has happened to many another maiden, Florence has been mistreated because of her beauty."

Over the next few years, Stribling taught and lectured at several universities. He taught novel writing and English at Columbia University in 1936 and 1940. In 1936, he received an honorary Doctor of Literature degree from Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia. Later, that same year, he lectured at the University of Colorado.

During the last decades of Mr. Stribling's life, he continued to write. He is reported to have written some of the episodes for the series, The Little Rascals. Much of his writing during this time period involved short stories and is best described as "whodunit" fiction. Some of these stories were published by Ellery Queen, Famous Detective and Smashing Detective Stories. Many of these detective stories had a principal character named Dr. Henry Poggioli. Several of his short stories focusing on the criminal investigations of Dr. Poggioli have been compiled and are available under the title of Best Dr. Poggioli Detective Stories published by Dover Publications.

Despite the fact Mr. Stribling wrote several more novels over the remainder of his life, he would only publish two of these. The Soundwagon was published by Doubleday in 1935. Three years later, These Bars of Flesh would become T. S. Stribling's last published novel. Among his papers at the Tennessee State Library and Archives and the University of North Alabama's Collier Library are the completed but unpublished manuscripts of Laura, Design on Darkness, Boat on the Sun, and a philosophical treatise entitled The Philosophy of Yes and No.

In the 1940's and 50's, the Striblings would alternate their residences as they traveled. Most of their winters were spent in Florida while New York played host to their summers. They would intermittently make return trips to Clifton during this period. The Striblings eventually returned to their beloved Clifton to live year round in 1959.

After a self imposed exile from Florence of over three decades, Mr. Stribling accepted an invitation from English Professor Nick Winn to speak at his alma mater, Florence State College, in January 1964. The invitation coincided with the reissuing of The Store in a paperback edition. At the time, the novel was required reading for all of the school's freshman English classes.

During this visit, Stribling attempted to make light of the local controversy which his trilogy created by recalling an incident which happened at the Pulitzer awards banquet in 1933. Stribling said he accidentally stepped on the foot of the famous poet Robert Frost when he went to accept his award. When Mr. Frost reminded the author of the event years later, Stribling responded to the poet "I have stepped on other people's feet, too."

Over the next few months after his Florence State appearance, Stribling accepted other invitations to speak in the area. He spoke at schools in the city of Florence and in Lauderdale County. Moreover, Stribling and his wife would frequently make trips to Florence for shopping or social occasions.

In 1965, the eighty-four year old author and his wife moved to Florence due to his declining health. During the last few months of his life, the Striblings lived in an apartment at 510 North Poplar Street in Florence. T. S. Stribling died July 8, 1965, at Mitchell-Hollingsworth Annex in Florence. He is buried in Clifton Cemetery in his hometown. An inscription on his tombstone reads "Through This Dust These Hills Once Spoke." Eighteen years later his widow would die on October 12, 1993 in Waynesboro, Tennessee. She is buried next to him.

Seventeen years after his death, Mr. Stribling's autobiography, Laughing Stock, was published in 1982. It was edited by Dr. Randy Cross and Dr. John McMillan. At the time of its publication, both men were graduate English students at the University of Mississippi. This posthumous autobiography would later be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize but would not win. 

In 1985, the University of Alabama Press reissued Stribling's trilogy with new introductions by Dr. Randy Cross. Two years prior, theatre students at the University of North Alabama under the direction of Dr. Edward Foote produced the thirty minute film "She Had Hair Like His Sister's." It was an adaptation of a Stribling short story which was first published in the British publication, The Delineator, in 1933. The short film won Stribling's alma mater a student Emmy and national recognition.

Dr. Edward J. Piacentino, in his book, T. S. Stribling: Pioneer Realist in Modern Southern Literature, recognizes Stribling as a pioneer in the Southern Literary Renaissance. Piacentino concludes his book by saying "Stribling helped to transmit significant social themes and a diverse range of character types drawn from real-life southern experience and presented them from an iconoclastic perspective. In this capacity, he broke new ground, and defying longstanding conventional conceptions about the South, he brought to the forefront new and startling images and introduced a critical method for treating them, thus paving the way for modern southern literature."

In the 1920's and 30's, T.S. Stribling was America's foremost author. He sold more books than any author between the two world wars. The former Florence resident even outsold his leading contemporaries, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. Stribling is credited with being at the vanguard of the Southern Literary Renaissance. Critics acknowledge his work as paving the way for other Southern writers to directly address the pressing social and political issues which faced the region. While he was ostracized in much of the South, the work of this former Florence resident has played an important role in both literature and social progress.

The private papers of T. S. Stribling were given to the Tennessee State Library and Archives after his death. These papers include his correspondence, travel journals, short stories, literary contracts, reviews, and rough drafts of his novels. A copy of this Stribling collection has been donated to the University of North Alabama. It is available for viewing at UNA's Collier Library along with a permanent display case of collectibles from Mr. Stribling's life. Framed copies of the certificate which T. S. Stribling received for winning the Pulitzer Prize have been donated and are available for viewing at Collier Library and the Florence Public Library.

Copyright by William E. Smith, All rights reserved. 

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